Why Do We Need Saddam’s Permission To Fly Spy Planes Over Iraq?

In his remarks to the United Nations earlier this week, Secretary of State Colin Powell blasted Iraq for its refusal “to permit any U-2 reconnaissance flights that would give the [weapons] inspectors a better sense of what’s being moved.” As Explainer noted last week, U-2s are virtually impossible to shoot down, and the United States seemingly has few qualms about dispatching them over North Korea without Kim Jong-il’s OK. So why the need for Iraqi permission?

Because these planes would technically be flown by the United Nations, not the United States. And the United Nations is not eager to risk taking unilateral action, given the trickiness of the situation.

The U-2s in question would be flown under the auspices of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission. Yes, they would be American-owned and -operated—there are only about 50 qualified U-2 pilots in the world, after all—but the planes’ wings would be repainted to bear the United Nations’ baby-blue insignia. And UNMOVIC would be officially bound to make sure the U-2s were being used only for weapons-monitoring purposes, not to gather intelligence for a possible invasion.

According to U.S. officials, Iraq’s refusal to permit U-2 flights is a direct violation of U.N. Resolution 1441, which allows inspectors free use of both manned and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. (The United States also offered UNMOVIC the use of unmanned, low-flying Predator drones, which chief weapons inspector Hans Blix declined.) Iraq has countered that it cannot guarantee a U-2’s safety so long as American and British jets continue to enforce the no-fly zones. Those jets are occasionally fired upon as they patrol the zones, which Iraq refuses to recognize. According to Iraqi Gen. Husam Muhammad Amin, an errant surface-to-air missile fired at one of those fighters could accidentally strike a high-flying U-2. He insists that all other military aircraft cease operating during the U-2 flyovers and that Iraq be tipped off as to the reconnaissance schedule.

Whether Saddam Hussein’s air defenses could actually threaten a U-2 is up for debate. Many defense analysts have pointed out that Iraqi’s surface-to-air missiles are fairly antiquated, with the bulk of the arsenal dating back to the early 1970s. However, there is always the remote possibility of a lucky shot. Blix, already in the most tenuous of political spots, cannot afford to take any chances.

The tug of war over UNMOVIC’s spy planes may not necessarily be keeping the United States from patrolling the Iraqi skies in U-2s. On Tuesday, Turkey’s NTV television reported that two U.S. U-2s took off from a German air base and would be flying over Turkey en route to Iraq. Turkey’s government, which is dealing with widespread opposition to the looming war, denied that its airspace was being used for U-2 missions.

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